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Covid threat to Nordic “julebord” tradition and restaurant survival

Covid threat to Nordic “julebord” tradition and restaurant survival

| Text: Bjørn Lønnum Andreasen, Björn Lindahl, Marie Preisler, photo: Björn Lindahl

Julebord is a Christmas office party on steroids and a major tradition in Norway and Denmark. This season is already a crisis for restaurants and food providers say enterprise confederations. But at least there will probably be fewer #metoo situations.

Julebord – literally Christmas table – is a particular phenomenon in Norway and Denmark – only the Danes call it julefrokost – Christmas breakfast. It usually means that everyone working for a company is invited to a lively party at a restaurant. Many eat more than they can and drink at least as much alcohol. As a result, you will find hundreds of stories from both countries if you google “julebord/julefrokost and #metoo.

Employers in other Nordic countries invite workers to socialise before Christmas too. But the big office party can be held any time of year and does not necessarily have to be an extravagant Christmas do. 

“Julbord” in Finland and Sweden is more about how the table is laid and what is eaten. Family and friends might also gather to julbord in restaurants. 

In Denmark and Norway, they merge the office party and julebord. The julebord is an important day in the social calendar. It can be a good catalyst for social equalising between colleagues, but it can also end in sexual harassment.   

Source: cinema posters

The office party is not so closely linked to Christmas in Sweden and Finland as it is in Denmark and Norway. But they evolved in the 70s when it became accepted that the boss and the reception lady were on the same level. These two film posters show the difference.

The Danish office julefrokost has historically had a reputation for being an event where the alcohol intake is large, and the socialising more easy-going than in everyday life. This has sometimes ended in situations where employees have felt harassed. 

Before the 2018 julefrokost season the Confederation of Danish Employees wrote to their members urging them to keep the julefrokost “decent”:

“Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual attention and other harassment has no place anywhere, and absolutely not at work. The office julefrokost is for many a joyous occasion which they look forward to. It is important to have clear guidelines for what constitutes proper behaviour.” 

From bad to worse

This year the julebord season is different because of Corona and the limitations put on the serving of alcohol and the number of party-goers.

Theatercafeen interior

The tables are ready but there are no guests at Theatercaféen. Shipping magnate John Fredriksen usually hosts a spectacular julebord here every year.

Many fear an avalanche of businesses going bust in the new year. “New situation report: The crisis in hospitality has gone from bad to worse,” says the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise NHO.  

Eight in ten businesses have seen julebord bookings halved compared to last year, shows NHO’s fresh survey of hospitality sector members. 95% of Oslo’s hospitality businesses say bookings are down by half or more, according to the survey. And the figures are not much better for the country as a whole:

83% say julebord bookings are half or less compared to last year. Just two percent of the businesses say they see the same level as last year. 

Worse in Denmark

According to the NTB news agency, in Denmark nine in ten julebord have been cancelled. The Danish hospitality sector is expecting to see just 10% of ordinary turnover this December. The Corona pandemic and restrictions in its wake mean julefrokosts get cancelled.

Julefrokosts usually represent a turnover of 2.5 billion Danish kroner (€336m) for the Danish hospitality sector. Yet a survey of members of the trade organisation Horesta shows they believe 90% of this turnover will disappear this year.

Denmark has introduced a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. The restaurant trade is already hard hit by the Corona pandemic. Their December turnover normally helps them through January and February, the months with the lowest turnover. 

Several major Danish employees have now followed a request from Horesta to give employees restaurant vouchers for Christmas. 

A possible solution

Norway's Minister of Finance Jan Tore Sanner (Conservatives) recently confirmed that restaurant vouchers or restaurant expenses will count as a company’s reasonable welfare measures and be tax-exempt. So a good alternative to the traditional julebord would be a small group of employees, observing infection control measures, going out for Christmas dinner on company expenses, he said. Denmark has similar solutions.  

There have been dramatic drops in turnover in Sweden and Finland too. Takings have plummeted after the government’s ban on alcohol sales after 10 pm along with other tightenings of the rules, the hospitality sector organisation wrote in a press release on 25 November.

Hotels’ turnover is down by more than 75% in the latest week compared to last year. Restaurants have lost nearly 70%. The situation is critical, and the government must improve its support as soon as possible to save jobs and businesses.

“The situation is extreme and it is getting worse by the day. The government must present stronger, better and longer-lasting support which can really save jobs and businesses,” says Jonas Siljhammar, CEO at the hospitality sector employers’ union Visita.

Finland tightened its rules on alcohol service and opening hours on 3 December, but rules vary between different parts of the county. In Uusimaa, the region where you find the capital Helsinki, all service must close at 10 pm. Restaurants that serve mainly alcohol can only run at half their capacity. Restaurants that serve mainly food can run at 75% capacity.

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120 years old and closed out December

Oslo's Theatercaféen i Oslo (above) opened its doors 120 years ago and has survived many challenges. The doors will most probably reopen, but many Nordic restaurants fear going bust. Photo: Björn Lindahl

Theatercafeen closed


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